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In one of his last brisk assertions before he died in 1983 at the age of 88, Halas retrieved his old tight end from Tom Landry's coaching staff in Dallas and charged Ditka with restoring a mood. When he was a player, Ditka's style had been to pin teammates on the locker-room wall if they neglected to meet his standards. As a coach, he is hard on the furniture. "When the players walked in the first day," recalls Payton, "Mike was standing there with his arms folded. He nodded to [Assistant] Ted Plumb, who started calling roll. I thought, 'We're in the Army now.' "Ditka, 46, is from Aliquippa, Pa., and his people are from the Ukraine, Nagurski stock. A Canadian who has lived most of his rich life just across a frozen lake in Minnesota, Bronko, 77, once claimed to have no personal knowledge of summer. That's the Bear toughness. "Some teams are named Smith," Ditka says. "Some are named Grabowski." He bends his mustache into a snarling smile. "We're the Grabowskis."
Even Payton, the teddy bear whose cloying nickname is "Sweetness," counts himself among the brutes. When Payton passed Jim Brown last season to become the leading rusher in league history (14,860 yds. to date), Brown gave him a blessing that the proud Cleveland runner would have withheld from Pittsburgh's Franco Harris. "Payton is a gladiator," he said. "Walter follows the code." Brown was a better runner; so was Sayers. But for running, blocking, throwing passes and catching them, Payton is all-around the most productive football player of the two-platoon era. "For most of his career, teams have been able to key on him alone," notes Defensive Tackle John Dutton of the Dallas Cowboys, "and still no one has stopped him." Matt Suhey, Payton's current backfield mate, figures that "the best ground-gaining combination of all time is Walter Payton and any other running back."
How Payton has endured these eleven seasons, physically and spiritually, still so near to the top of his game, is more than a wonder. He logged a record nine straight 100-yd. running games this season and led the team in receptions. After Chicago thrashed the Los Angeles Rams, 24-0, to take the National Conference championship, one Bear after another stopped by Payton's locker just to touch him. "Eleven years of climbing that mountain," he sighed, speaking not altogether figuratively. As the boy once ran the hot sandbanks by the Pearl River close to his home in Columbia, Miss., the man has made training device of a black dirt hill near suburban Arlington Heights. "I have to work harder every year," he says. "Let's put it this way, when I first started playing football, I didn't use as much adhesive tape as I use now." So at least two months before each season, his regimen begins.